Culture is a potent force in shaping individual and group behavior, yet it has received scant attention in the context of financial risk management and the recent financial crisis. I present a brief overview of the role of culture according to psychologists, sociologists, and economists, and then present a specific framework for analyzing culture in the context of financial practices and institutions in which three questions are answered: (1) What is culture?; (2) Does it matter?; and (3) Can it be changed? I illustrate the utility of this framework by applying it to five concrete situations—Long Term Capital Management; AIG Financial Products; Lehman Brothers and Repo 105; Société Générale’s rogue trader; and the SEC and the Madoff Ponzi scheme—and conclude with a proposal to change culture via “behavioral risk management.”
with Ruixun Zhang, Thomas J. Brennan, PNAS (2014)
Risk aversion is one of the most basic assumptions of economic behavior, but few studies have addressed the question of where risk preferences come from and why they differ from one individual to the next. Here, we propose an evolutionary explanation for the origin of risk aversion. In the context of a simple binary-choice model, we show that risk aversion emerges by natural selection if reproductive risk is systematic (i.e., correlated across individuals in a given generation). In contrast, risk neutrality emerges if reproductive risk is idiosyncratic (i.e., uncorrelated across each given generation). More generally, our framework implies that the degree of risk aversion is determined by the stochastic nature of reproductive rates, and we show that different statistical properties lead to different utility functions. The simplicity and generality of ourmodel suggest that these implications are primitive and cut across species, physiology, and genetic origins.
with Ruixun Zhang, Thomas J. Brennan, PLOS One 9 (2014)
Despite many compelling applications in economics, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology, group selection is still one of the most hotly contested ideas in evolutionary biology. Here we propose a simple evolutionary model of behavior and show that what appears to be group selection may, in fact, simply be the consequence of natural selection occurring in stochastic environments with reproductive risks that are correlated across individuals. Those individuals with highly correlated risks will appear to form “groups”, even if their actions are, in fact, totally autonomous, mindless, and, prior to selection, uniformly randomly distributed in the population. This framework implies that a separate theory of group selection is not strictly necessary to explain observed phenomena such as altruism and cooperation. At the same time, it shows that the notion of group selection does captures a unique aspect of evolution—selection with correlated reproductive risk–that may be sufficiently widespread to warrant a separate term for the phenomenon.
with Kathryn M. Kaminski, Journal of Financial Markets 18 (2014), 234-254.
We propose a simple analytical framework to measure the value added or subtracted by stoploss rules—predetermined policies that reduce a portfolio’s exposure after reaching a certain threshold of cumulative losses—on the expected return and volatility of an arbitrary portfolio strategy. Using daily futures price data, we provide an empirical analysis of stop-loss policies applied to a buy-and-hold strategy using index futures contracts. At longer sampling frequencies, certain stop-loss policies can increase expected return while substantially reducing volatility, consistent with their objectives in practical applications.
Handbook of Systemic Risk, edited by J.P. Fouque and J. Langsam
Abstract Historical accounts of financial crises suggest that fear and greed are the common denominators of these disruptive events: periods of unchecked greed eventually lead to excessive leverage and unsustainable asset-price levels, and the inevitable collapse results in unbridled fear, which must subside before any recovery is possible. The cognitive neurosciences may provide some new insights into this boom/bust pattern through a deeper understanding of the dynamics of emotion and human behavior. In this chapter, I describe some recent research from the neurosciences literature on fear and reward learning, mirror neurons, theory of mind, and the link between emotion and rational behavior. By exploring the neuroscientific basis of cognition and behavior, we may be able to identify more fundamental drivers of financial crises, and improve our models and methods for dealing with them.
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 157 (2013), 269-280.
Rational economic behavior in which individuals maximize their own self-interest is only one of many possible types of behavior that arise from natural selection. Given an initial population of individuals, each assigned a purely arbitrary behavior with respect to a binary choice problem, and assuming that offspring behave identically to their parents, only those behaviors linked to reproductive success will survive, and less successful behaviors will disappear exponentially fast. This framework yields a single evolutionary explanation for the origin of several behaviors that have been observed in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans, including risk-sensitive foraging, risk aversion, loss aversion, probability matching, randomization, and diversification. The key to understanding which types of behavior are more likely to survive is how behavior affects reproductive success in a given population's environment. From this perspective, intelligence is naturally defined as behavior that increases the likelihood of reproductive success, and bounds on rationality are determined by physiological and environmental constraints.
Financial Analysts Journal, 68 (2012), 18-29
In the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis (AMH) intelligent but fallible investors learn from and adapt to changing economic environments. This implies that markets are not always efficient, but are usually competitive and adaptive, varying in their degree of efficiency as the environment and investor population change over time. The AMH has several implications including the possibility of negative risk premia, alpha converging to beta, and the importance of macro factors and risk budgeting in asset-allocation policies.
with Thomas J. Brennan, PLOS One, 7 (2012)
Most economic theories are based on the premise that individuals maximize their own self-interest and correctly incorporate the structure of their environment into all decisions, thanks to human intelligence. The influence of this paradigm goes far beyond academia–it underlies current macroeconomic and monetary policies, and is also an integral part of existing financial regulations. However, there is mounting empirical and experimental evidence, including the recent financial crisis, suggesting that humans do not always behave rationally, but often make seemingly random and suboptimal decisions.
with Jasmina Hasanhodzic and Emanuele Viola, Quantitative Finance 7, 1043-1050
We propose to study market efficiency from a computational viewpoint. Borrowing from theoretical computer science, we define a market to be efficient with respect to resources S (e.g., time, memory) if no strategy using resources S can make a profit. As a first step, we consider memory-m strategies whose action at time t depends only on the m previous observations at times t - m,...,t - 1. We introduce and study a simple model of market evolution, where strategies impact the market by their decision to buy or sell. We show that the effect of optimal strategies using memory m can lead to "market conditions" that were not present initially, such as (1) market bubbles and (2) the possibility for a strategy using memory m' > m to make a bigger profit than was initially possible. We suggest ours as a framework to rationalize the technological arms race of quantitative trading firms.
with Jasmina Hasanhodzic
One of the most enduring empirical regularities in equity markets is the inverse relationship between stock prices and volatility, first documented by Black (1976) who attributed it to the effects of financial leverage. As a company's stock price declines, it becomes more highly leveraged given a fixed level of debt outstanding, and this increase in leverage induces a higher equity-return volatility. In a sample of all-equity-financed companies from January 1972 to December 2008, we find that the leverage effect is just as strong if not stronger, implying that the inverse relationship between price and volatility is not driven by financial leverage.